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Summer Thoughts: What About A North American Hockey Champions League?

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With the continued growth of following European soccer among American sports fans, North America's hockey leagues should borrow an idea from Europe's biggest club tournament.

Cam Fowler, Devante Smith-Pelly and the Ducks would compete in the proposed tournament.
Cam Fowler, Devante Smith-Pelly and the Ducks would compete in the proposed tournament.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Early August is the worst time on the hockey calendar. It's a time when respected sources resort to ranking logos as a means to fill content, and others try and suck all the fun out of things with numbers. With the exception of Kid Ish's general awesomeness plus our semi-regular podcast goodness, outside of occasional news stories there've been a lot of crickets from your friends here at Anaheim Calling.

Then Travis Hughes posted this tremendous bit of fantasy reworking of the North American professional hockey minor league system. You may have seen it on Facebook as the seeming backbone of an alleged "major shakeup coming" from more gossipy sources as well. For the tl;dr crowd, Hughes proposes moving as well as changing the leagues of teams in the AHL, ECHL, and CHL so as to create a complete minor league system where every NHL team that matters has its AAA affiliate in reasonable proximity (read: not across the country, unless you're Edmonton) and the AA league represents all of the country.

It's the kind of fun, outside the box thinking that summer hockey columns seem meant for. After all, taking a flight of fancy on improving the minor league system is much more imaginative than retreading the well-worn path of "increase the net size" (and yes, this is just an excuse for us to all point and laugh at the bubble-goal idea again) or some other rule-based argument. It should serve as a jumping off point for other cool stuff!

Enter, the North American Hockey Champions League.

For those who aren't familiar, the idea comes based on the set up of the UEFA Champions League (UCL), which is one of the most followed international soccer tournaments. It features 32 of the top finishing teams from the continent's major national soccer leagues, and combines both pool based round robin play with tournament style bracketed play to crown the soccer Champion of Europe. The format is also followed in North America by CONCACAF, though it doesn't get as much attention in the US thanks to heavy dominance of the tournament by Mexican clubs.

Tournament Nuts and Bolts

The North American Hockey Champions League borrows from the CONCACAF Champions League format, taking 24 teams and placing them into eight groups of three. In the group stage each team plays their group members home and away, with the top finishing team from the group advancing to the eight team knockout stage. In group play a win counts for three points, a shootout win for two points, and a shootout loss for one point- if a game is tied at the end of regulation in group play it immediately goes to a shootout for expediency of determining a result. Should teams finish tied in their standings at the conclusion of group play, the team with more goals scored advances.

For knockout stage play the advancing teams will be seeded first based on points within their group, with any ties broken by goal differential. The quarterfinal and semifinal rounds of play consist of a home and away game, with the higher seed hosting the second game. Score is kept in an aggregate manner, and if the teams are tied after the two games a shootout decides who advances. The final is a single game, where if the game is tied after regulation it goes to a 20 minute overtime, then if still tied is decided in a shootout.

Who Competes?

With this being a Champions League, it'll draw from the three major North American professional hockey leagues. The NHL draws nine automatic bids, going to the four regular season division champions as well as the four playoff division champions, and the top finishing Canadian team. The AHL draws eight slots with six going to the regular season division champions and two going to the playoff conference champions. The ECHL draws seven slots for five regular season division champions and two conference champions.

NHL AHL ECHL

Atlantic Division Champions

Regular Season

Atlantic Division Champions

Regular Season

Atlantic Division Champions

Regular Season

Metropolitan Division Champions

Regular Season

Northeastern Division Champions

Regular Season

North Division Champions

Regular Season

Central Division Champions

Regular Season

East Division Champions

Regular Season

South Division Champions

Regular Season

Pacific Division Champions

Regular Season

North Division Champions

Regular Season

Mountain Division Champions

Regular Season

Atlantic Division

Playoff Champions

Midwest Division Champions

Regular Season

Pacific Division Champions

Regular Season

Metropolitan Division

Playoff Champions

West Division Champions

Regular Season

Western Conference

Playoff Champions

Central Division

Playoff Champions

Western Conference

Playoff Champions

Eastern Conference

Playoff Champions

Pacific Division

Playoff Champions

Eastern Conference

Playoff Champions

Canadian Wild Card

In the case where an NHL regular season division champion is the same as a playoff division champion, or in the AHL and ECHL's case a playoff conference champion is also a regular season division champion, then the next highest finishing team in the division in the regular season would be given that division's slot. For the NHL's guaranteed Canadian wild card, if there are teams that qualify as either regular season or playoff division champions, the team with the next best regular season record gets the spot.

Groups would be set up with the three league champions guaranteed to be in separate groups, and also guaranteed they will not be paired with the NHL's additional Canadian wild card. Each group, with the exception of the group with the Canadian entrant, would have a team from each of the leagues. To determine groups the UCL's method of drawing the clubs from separate pots would be used; the Canadian wild card being required to play in a group with another NHL team and AHL team.

How This Might Look

Since Texas won the AHL's Western Conference (and Calder Cup), the Abbotsford Heat would take their West Division spot, and with the Alaska Aces winning the ECHL's Western Conference (and Kelly Cup) the Utah Grizzlies receive their Mountain Division berth. Based on the final results of this year, we've drawn (legit, names on paper taken from three separate glasses!) the group stage for the hypothetical 2014 North American Hockey Champions League:

Nahclgroups_medium

(All logos from www.sportslogos.net)

On first glance, there are a couple of pretty neat match-ups in play here. First and foremost, the Ducks facing the Ontario Reign in group stage play would be great fun for all involved- not only are the Reign a Kings affiliate, but the teams are just under 35 freeway miles apart. Boston facing Springfield is another intrastate meeting pitting eastern and western Massachusetts, with Ottawa being close enough to reasonably reach by bus if necessary. Los Angeles taking on the AHL runner-up St. John's would be interesting, as well as having an interleague meeting between Original Six cities in Chicago and Toronto.

As far as logistics for the tournament, it could be played over the course of two months with games on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Suppose it were to start the first week in July, with the first group stage game being played on the first Saturday of the month. From there the teams would play the following Wednesday, then Saturday, then Wednesday. Group play would compose the entirety of July, with the knockout stage playing out over the same schedule in August, leading to the championship final on the final Saturday of the month.

Pros and Cons

On the plus side this would give actual live hockey of some consequence for fans to watch during the summer months. It also gives some added incentive to care for more if a team wins a division title in the regular season beyond playoff seeding as it'd mean they'd be playing in this tournament. Another plus is it could breed a greater incentive for fans to follow the three levels of North American hockey more closely to keep tabs on who would qualify for the tournament.  Taking place during July and August and playing only one game a week for up to nine weeks wouldn't overly tax players as far as on ice goes, with three off days between the two ends of home-and-homes, and nine days off between facing either the second team in pool play or the next opponent in the knockout round.

An additional bonus would be giving hockey fans in small markets the chance to see an NHL team live at their own arena for real, not only in cinema. The potential is there as well to build intracity rivalries (a "derby" if you want to use the British term) too- imagine if the Toronto Maple Leafs and Marlies, or Chicago Blackhawks and Wolves were to either be drawn into the same group or meet in the knockout stage. There also would be the added fun should an AHL team take on its NHL parent club; the AHL players not only looking to win but perhaps get more attention to move up to the big team. NHL teams could use it as an immediate barometer for new draft picks, as well as test out players in different roles (think PP time for Cogliano). There's also always the (albeit slim) potential of an advancing ECHL side that'd make for a great cinderella story to follow too.

As far as negatives go, the most immediate are questions of cost. Who would pay for it? Would it be too much of a monetary burden for AHL and particularly ECHL teams to have to make potentially at the least two cross-country trips during the off season? Would owners want their players playing in what would still likely initially be considered an exhibition tournament of sorts if they aren't making boatloads of money off it? Another question would be on whether or not teams would see it as a positive if their NHL, AHL, and ECHL sides were to play each other, especially should an injury occur.

There's also the issue of incentive for the teams involved, particularly from the NHL vantage point. The tournament would almost assuredly be dominated by the NHL teams considering they're the top league which the other two are farm teams for, unlike domestic cup competition (for example England's FA Cup) in European soccer where teams from multiple levels are included but they are all separate entities. Plus there's the honored tradition of the "Summer With Stanley" for champs that this tournament would undoubtedly interfere with. By having a two month tournament, no matter how spread out the games are, it'd take players away from quality time with their families, as well as offseason recovery. At least in the case of the occasional World Cup of Hockey, the players have the pride of donning their country's colors; this would be a new obligation to clubs that hasn't even been collectively bargained over.

Final Thoughts

The idea of a Champions League is certainly not a new one, but putting together one in North America is a much easier sell than the idea of trying to bring together the NHL with the likes of the KHL, Swedish Hockey League, SM-liiga, and so forth. While a tournament including multiple leagues has yet to take root in major American professional sports outside of soccer, the North American Hockey Champions League would be a nice entryway in hockey. While it's a flight of fancy to think it could actually happen, at the same time it's also a fun idea to think about during the offseason.

So with SB Nation already proposing overhauling the minor league hockey system in North America, why not consider an entirely new tournament too? It would bring the sport's different tiers together in a way unlike any other, all the while satiating hockey fans looking for their puck fix in the heat of summer.

Would you be excited to see the Ducks take on the Ontario Reign and Chicago Wolves as part of an off-season hockey tournament? Share your thoughts about a North American Hockey Champions League in the comment section!